Each chapter of Sarah Moss’s excellent new novel is prefaced by the description of a painting, by either Alfred Moberley or his friend Aubrey West, giving title, date, provenance, and then a catalogue description. (Think of them as vaguely pre-Raphaelite; the novel is set in Manchester and London from the 1850s to the end of the 1870s.) It’s a familiar device, and not one particularly to engender confidence: another novel about the life of a tortured artist, you think, playing off the genius of his work against the chaos of his private life… but I’m glad to say that nothing could be further from the truth of this solid and dignified narrative.
The first 50 or so pages treat the first years of marriage between Moberley and his very different wife, the strongly, severely religious and socially progressive Elizabeth, who devotes her energies to helping the poor women of Manchester. Gradually, though, it turns its attention from this mismatched couple to their elder daughter Alethea, who goes by Ally.
A bright girl, as nervous as she is intelligent, Ally is encouraged into an education her mother never experienced (poring over Mathematics for Schoolboys with a dozen other girls in a newly founded girls school), and ends the book among the first cohort of British female doctors graduated from the University of London, barely able to breathe for the weight of half a nation’s expectations on her shoulders.
As the novel progresses, those painting descriptions become less and less important to its narrative. Moberley rises as a painter and designer, acquires wealth and is exhibited in Paris, but the book belongs to Alethea, and her struggle both against the patriarchal society out to quash or belittle her, and against the domineering figure of her mother, whose fierce expectations she has internalised as her own refusal to submit to luxury or, really, any relaxation or happiness at all. Is it any surprise she suffers fits of ‘hysteria’, for which her mother prescribes shocks of cold water, and ‘blistering’ with candles? And is it any surprise she devotes herself to helping others, wanting to become a doctor only to be able to minister to women who until now have had to yield themselves up to male doctors.
There is plenty of research here – of the condition of women in poverty in the late 19th century, and of the impact of the Contagious Diseases Act, which saw the police able to pull any woman off the street or out of her house to be forcibly tested for STDs, as well as sick prostitutes “guilty of the crime of catching a disease with which it is perfectly legal for a man to infect them”.
But Moss moves fast – concentrating on Alethea’s progress with an almost monomaniacal fervour. It is as if any moment’s pause for reflection, or extended description, or fanciful abstraction – any of that Modernism that blossomed 30 years after the story’s end – would spell doom as surely as would butter or gravy in Elizabeth’s household regimen.
No matter. It is a stirring narrative, and holds the reader’s attention with a steady gaze that matches the importance of its subject matter. We are promised a sequel (and there is a link to Moss’s earlier novel, Night Waking) which has taken Moss to Japan for research, so who knows where Alethea ends up, but I look forward to finding out. Moss’s hero has already conquered her parents, the social and educational establishment, and herself. The book ends with the promise of happiness. You hope she finds it.